Self-Care; and A Compilation of Online Teaching Support Resources for COVID-19

A few years back, I wrote a self-care post: “Physical, Mental, and Emotional Taxation in the Classroom.” It was responding to the standard wear and tear involved in the field of teaching. Now, with the current COVID-19 stress of remote teaching, many are feeling an additional strain of trying to teach through entirely different platforms in a complicated environment that no one signed up for at the start of the term.

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I am already teaching fully online this semester, so my experience has been different. I haven’t had the strain of reconfiguring my entire semester. I don’t have some magical key for teaching online other than to say designing actual online courses takes more than a few days or a week. I support all the good faith efforts of faculty to try and embrace technology to complete the rest of the semester in whatever way you see fit.

I also work at colleges with very supportive environments. This past week one of my colleges hosted a virtual townhall for students via the webinar feature through Zoom and hit the maximum 10,000 online attendees. Students are looking for support and college administration, faculty, and staff are trying to make the best of a difficult situation. On the other hand, hearing of faculty elsewhere who have decided they need to add more to the virtual classes in the name of rigor or watching students being kicked out of their dorms with little notice or resources has been disheartening to say the least.

The purpose of this post is to continue my previous self-care advocacy, in terms of ourselves and respecting our students’ self-care as well, during this very precarious time. I have also mined some support resources for transitioning to various forms of virtual learning for the remainder of the semester from a Facebook Group I was invited to a week ago, aptly named Pandemic Pedagogy. We should remember that it is not business as usual, and we shouldn’t act like it is.

Self-Care 

Of course there is the levity of McSweeney’s “Welcome to Your Hastily Prepared Online College Course,” which per usual hits way too close home; or Professor Michael Brueuning’s rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s classic with “‘I Will Survive’ Teaching Online.”

For those fellow coffee shop workers, there is a Youtube video to help the ambiance of your current workspace.

On a more serious note, we need to have a little bit of grace with our own self-expectations. Many of us might need to take a moment to really embrace the fact that this is not a sabbatical and staying home isn’t creating some super productive or idyllic situation for most, so “Please Don’t Be Guilted Into Being More Productive During The Coronavirus.”

There are other ideas that have been shared, like departments creating support groups of 5 or so faculty members who check in with one another weekly via Zoom once a week. We aren’t in this alone, and as many of us know, teaching is isolating enough without being confined to our homes. 

We also need to remember the state of the US education system going into this pandemic. Who makes up the majority of the teaching workforce at colleges? Contingent faculty face many additional challenges. If prepping to switch 2 or 3 or 4 classes to the online space is daunting and exhausting, imagine you are teaching 6 or 8 classes, living at the poverty level, and are not seeing any extra compensation for all the additional work. So let’s consider how “The Move to Online College is Hitting Adjunct Professors the Hardest” and adjust our expectations accordingly.

We don’t know how long we are going to be in this situation, so let’s support one another but also respect how much support we actually have to give. We can’t support everyone in our lives and need to be able to say, “I don’t have anything left to give you today.”

Student Support

It’s important to recognize that the challenge for students extends far beyond just navigating our courses in a new format with which they may not be comfortable. Although, this is something of which we do need to be cognizant.

For nearly all of my own undergrad and graduate education, I did not have the internet at home. It wasn’t that it didn’t exist—I’m a millennial—it’s that I didn’t have the money for it. I would not have been able to easily transition to online remote learning or teaching at those points in my life. I also lived off of campus, so I wasn’t going “home” anywhere else. Home was down the street not somewhere else with parents. My point is we do not have a homogeneous student population, even at four year universities with largely “traditional” student populations.

We need to listen to our students. What learning can take place in the current environment? Not just the online learning situation, but the stress and anxiety of living right now. We are working with a generation that we have spent a lot of time fighting the stigma of mental health for, and they are more in tune with their mental health needs. College student Hannah Connors addresses some of the mental strain and how to cope in “How College Students Can Prioritize Mental Health During the COVID-19 Outbreak.” As a part of this, it is important to include our students in the decisions we make about how best to proceed because we may think we have a great solution that falls short: “A Brief Letter to an Institution that Believes Extensions are the Accommodations We Need Right Now.”

While this applies to both faculty and students, it is important to be aware of the additional labor many will face from childcare to parental care as noted in The Guardian’s  “Women’s Domestic Burden Just Got Heavier With The Coronavirus”

There are many different ways to connect emotionally with students as outlined by Mays Imad in “Hope Matters.” We should choose a way that reflects our individual level of comfort for engaging students outside of the course material. Some of us embrace the touchy-feely element of teaching, while others of us feel much more comfortable maintaining distance. It all works as long as we embrace the humanity of the situation.

One faculty shared the success of using a class Google Doc for students to share what they are reading, watching, listening to, etc. while sequestered in their homes. This helps build and maintain more connectedness while so far apart and acknowledge that we are aware of the strain this moment is having on all of us.

And then there are graduate students. Stop for a minute and contemplate what it means to have the responsibility on both sides: supporting their students while transitioning their classes online and trying to navigate their graduate coursework in the new online/remote format. They have the additional work on both sides of this. Remember mental health struggles are higher among the graduate student population than the larger population.  Check in with them as both your students and your colleagues.

Transitioning to Online Learning

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Before I list some of the great technical resources and ideas that have been shared, I would like to start with what the spirit of the transition to remote learning can look like. Associate Professor Brandon L. Bayne created a statement of principles addressing the current situation for his students and was kind enough to share it for others’ use. Let’s not forget to acknowledge our sources (it has already been adopted by an entire college without noting where it came from among other places).

And as Professor Rebecca Barrett-Fox implores before sharing her tips for moving online, “Please Do a Bad Job of Putting Your Courses Online” because it’s not an online class.

Some have been teaching online for a while and offer their insights and resources below:

Nancy Chick, Jennifer Friberg, and Lee Skallerup Bessett have sifted through academic conversations and compiled “What the Research Tells Us about Higher Education’s Temporary Shift to Remote Teaching.”

The NEH has a list of online programs with resources to help the transition process to online learning on their “Digital Humanities and Online Education” teacher’s guide.

Open University has compiled some support links and OER information in “How Can You Take Your Teaching Online?”

Professor Vanessa Dennen shares “offer some of my expertise, developed across a 20+ year career of teaching online, designing online courses, and researching online learning” on her wordpress page for “Teaching Online During COVID-19.”

MLA Commons offers links to a wide range of resources as well for “Bringing Your Course Online.”

HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) offers both interdisciplinary and discipline specific resources in “Thoughts & Resources for Those About to Start Teaching Online Due to COVID-19.”

Here are some suggested resources for different teaching needs:
Accessibility
Films Online
Research
Reading
Chats
Grades

Finally, the ultimate stressor: What about grades? Or more importantly, is there an equitable grading practice to implement in our new situations?

There has been a lot of discussion about this issue. Do we keep our grading system as it is? Is our college switching to pass/fail or credit/no credit options alongside choosing to take a letter grade? Or do individual faculty implement pass/fail in the form of only A or F grades? Do we switch to some version of contract grading or specifications grading? Oris the answer what Professor Jenny Davidson proposes in “Forget distance learning. Just give every college student an automatic A”?

Some have very strong opinions about grading. My position is to be kind and to be realistic.

Once again, this is not business as usual.

 

How to Make a Comps List: Tips & Tricks for Grad Students and Advisors

In writing this post I am struck with the realization that “Wow, it’s been almost a decade since I made my comps list!” It was a time of excitement. Putting together the comps was like selecting a menu of awesomeness: a wish list of things I wanted to read for a long time, but didn’t have the chance to read during coursework. Or life. Of course, the excitement was quickly followed by an incapacitating dread as I contemplated the “Mom, I think I’m having a heart attack; should I go to the ER?” terribleness of actually getting the reading done.

These Are Books

I’ve thought a lot about the utility of my comps list over the past few years, especially post-PhD in the context of my changing research focus and the evolution of my (lack of a) career. I realize, in retrospect, the comps list is a tricky genre because it looks backwards; serves as an in-the-moment document; and also functions as a forward-looking anticipatory document. The comps list, in many ways, functions as a meaningless document in a post-Great Recession world.

I’ve thought a lot about my comps list since the close of my PhD. Not so much the comps list itself, but the process of its creation. As a practical issue, I’ve drawn more on the creation aspect of making a comps list, as opposed to what I actually read. More recently, I’ve revisited the idea of reading lists in the context of my recent research interests and my desire to look further back into American literature. Let’s be honest: there will never be graduate students for me to shepherd through the process of creating a comps list. However, that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about the process of generating a comps list.

Still, I have good ideas about creating a comps list and I want to share them because they might be helpful to graduate students and their advisors. The advice below is tailored to graduate students studying literature. However, I believe the advice might me useful for students and advisors in related humanities fields.

Streamline

Don’t Make Things Hard For Yourself

Do what you can to streamline the comps list, the reading process, and the exam process, whether you’re the student or (especially) if you are the mentor. The job situation has changed drastically in the 10 years since I created my first comps lists drafts. The market has changed even more in the few years since I’ve completed my PhD. Do what you can to streamline the entire process. If you’re a mentor, don’t let students get caught up in some kind of rosy, idealized process of comps. Set up the comps list to move students through. To this end, don’t get caught up including things for the sake of teaching. In the idealized world of the past, the comps list also served as a forward-looking document that considered the role of teaching. Let’s be honest: many of us will never have the opportunity to teach the literature and secondary materials on the comps list. Cut things where possible. It is hard to write this statement for an essay on a teaching focused site, but: if the justification for including a text is the chance you might teach it in some idealized future, then don’t include it.

Know the purpose of your comps list in the context of your department’s comprehensive exams and the trajectory of completing the PhD.

Well, of course. Duh. I share this advice as a preface to my own advice. Departments, advisors, committee members, and others might be driving this comps list train in some weird ways. Just get through the process in the context of your department. Some lists, depending on the department, will skew towards an overview of the field or more towards dissertation preparation. Navigating this aspect of creating a comps list is on your advisor, but they’ll probably tell you just to read the department’s comps list guidance. Recognize that there can be nuance in the preparation of a comps list in the context of your department’s preferred exam process, whether it is a timed essay or exam, a weird genre of essay that you’ll never write again, or dissertation prep. Now, I’ll get to my advice.

Push Back Against Your Advisor and Committee Members

Well, what do you think we should do?

Honestly, I wish I did this more during the creation of my comps list. However, there is considerable hindsight bias on my part with this one. The earliest drafts of my comps list leaned heavily towards a trans-Atlantic focus and skewed more towards the eighteenth century. What am I doing now? (lol nothing; I’m doing nothing) I am thinking about trans-Atlantic and early American literature. Partly, I wish I was better prepped to do what I’m thinking about now. Don’t hesitate to advocate for what is meaningful to your intellectual growth. If you are an advisor, make sure to push back against other committee members bloating the reading list with their hobbyhorse readings and projects. Again, the watchword is streamline.

Create a Draft Document Right Away

Get started on creating a draft document where you can paste in texts for your reading list. Think about how you’ll organize it. Your advisor will likely have ideas on the organization. I had to do my list by author’s date of birth. Figure out the format and the information you’ll include. I recommend creating a shareable document that can be posted online and easily sent via email.           

Get on Twitter

Getting on Twitter is my go to piece of advice for starting to put together a comps list. Academic Twitter is at its best when used as a crowdsourcing tool. In the past, folks asked for reading suggestions on listservs. Maybe they still do. I can’t say because I’m not on any listservs. However, I was in the past and can say they were kinda lame. Listservs really can’t compare to academic Twitter’s depth of knowledge, generosity, and encouragement when it comes to the crowdsourced reading list. Twitter is at its best when you can get in with your fellow travelers. Set up an account, introduce yourself, and ask for reading suggestions. Be sure to check out my guide for getting started on Twitter, too.

Consult Comps Lists Posted Online

Many departments have posted example comps lists online. Check out these lists to get a feel for the general contours of the field. You don’t have to follow them exactly, but they will provide helpful inspiration for your own comps list.

Check out Websites from Professional Societies and Your Favorite Blogs

Your primary field and secondary field likely have some great resources online for suggested primary and secondary readings. These recommendations might be more reading lists than comps lists, but check them out anyway. Many of these lists are up to date; reflect the field’s latest trajectories without being trendy; and provide an excellent sense of the canonical and the new in terms of primary and secondary readings.

Check out the Major Anthologies in Your Field and Sub-Field

Hey, most of us want to blow up the canon. I get that. However, most department guides for comp lists want students to capture the canonical contours of the field for the purposes of teaching and research. Anthologies are helpful for getting a sense of canonical texts ideal for inclusion in a comps list. Additionally, some anthologies are better than others in terms of including marginalized authors and texts. An anthology’s inclusion of new canon texts is helpful evidence in pushing back against skeptical committee members. Skeptical committee member says “take it out.” You say, “well, it’s in the anthology.” Don’t just consult the main teaching anthologies; make sure to check out the several great anthologies focusing on different aspects of American literature which have come out in the past decade or so.

Amazon

Amazon is an awful company. However, the Amazon website can be a good place to source texts for your comps list. One of Amazon’s features is the “Customers who viewed this item also viewed X” feature. Find some of your key comps list texts on Amazon and see what appears based on the algorithm. Generally, these suggestions are pretty good, reflecting likely pairings of texts purchased for course work and research. However, sometimes you don’t get this feature because Amazon decides to serve up a list of sponsored related items. One minute you’re looking up texts related to Moby-Dick, the next minute Amazon is serving up a sponsored list of Kindle furry erotica about jellyfish. Your mileage may vary using Amazon to source reading suggestions. However, when it works, it just works.

Make Life Easier for Yourself: Part 1, Primary Texts

It is easy to get bogged down in the comps reading period and throw off the trajectory for completing the PhD in a timely manner. Make life easier on yourself by being strategic about creating a comps list. It is easy to the comps list into an ideal menu of things you should read or have wanted to read, but didn’t get the chance to reading during coursework. Or life. Resist the impulse to create a dream list. Recognize that not including something doesn’t mean you’ll never read it because it isn’t on the comps list. Instead, pepper the comps list with things you’ve already read. Don’t worry about rereading them. Hit up the American History Through Literature databases if you’re in need of any kind of refresher during the comps process. American History Through Literature is an amazing resource for comps, teaching, and just in general. Additionally, hit up anthologies for inspiration about what to read in full and what to read in selections. Take inspiration from how the anthologies curate their selections. All of Emerson’s essays? No, just read the highlights. All of Dickinson’s poems? No, just read the selected poems.

Make Life Easier for Yourself: Part 2, Secondary Texts

Scholarship

Much of the advice used for selecting primary texts applies to the selection of secondary texts. Include things you’ve already read. Need a refresher? Read book reviews with the added bonus of getting a sense of how the reviewed text is situated within the field. One of the biggest slogs of reading for comps comes in the form of reading canonical secondary works. It isn’t that the works are bad, many are still great. However, much of the reading comes with a pervasive feeling of “I’ve read this before” or “I already know this material.” My biggest piece of advice: skew the selection of secondary texts towards recent works in the field. Reading recent secondary scholarship will more than adequately provide you a sense of the major threads of past scholarship. I’d jettison most of my canonical secondary readings if I did comps again. At most, read the introductions to some of these canonical works, but don’t read the entire thing. Learn to love essay collections and recent journal articles, which are quick to read and give you a great feeling of accomplishment when crossing them off the list. Also, consider using a reading method to help move quickly through scholarship, like the method advocated by Karin Wulf. I also have an old handout for another reading method called STEAM. Send us a message if you’d like a copy.

Be wary of reading outside of your discipline. The majority of my secondary reading came from the field of history. Towards the end of my comps reading, and during the course of my dissertation research and writing, I realized that I sort of hated my own discipline. I preferred, enjoyed, and got more out of reading books by historians. It might have been useful for me to learn this lesson earlier. Maybe I would have not completed the PhD. It also could be a reflection of discovering what kind of scholarly work I like to do.

Conclusion

Enjoy this lovely meerkat from the Pittsburgh Zoo

Wow, this post is long. I didn’t realize I had so much to say. I have much more to say, but those thoughts are moving towards the actual process of comps reading and the exam. Let me know if you’d like to hear more about the process (from the perspective of mentor and mentee); I’ve got a lot more to say. What tips do you have for creating a comps list? Leave a reply or hit us up on social media!

Bonus: I dug up a copy of my comps reading list. Check it out here. The list is in three main parts centered around American literature from the Revolution to 1900ish. The secondary field focuses on sentimental literature from the Revolution and through the nineteenth century. There is a heavy dose of Harriet Beecher Stowe (my eventual dissertation topic). The secondary source list is focused on scholarship examining sentimental literature and culture.